Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ignoge's eyes

Following from yesterday's post, here is a medieval example of an unnarrated, barely glimpsed woman's story. It's taken from a section on Geoffrey of Monmouth in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain.

No woman's story in Geoffrey's text resonates more lastingly than that of Ignoge, the Greek princess forced to become bride to Brutus. Geoffrey of Monmouth ordinarily composes his narrative with sangfroid: little human feeling animates its accounts of battles, wonders, political intrigue, strife. He is not given to moments of aching identification such as William of Malmesbury's wrenching account of the sinking of the White Ship (History of the English Kings 5.419). Ignoge has little presence in Geoffrey's text, but as she sets sail with a husband she never chose for a future that is wholly uncertain, we are given a lingering depiction of her last vision of her native land. The episode is at once so evocative and so moving that, as Robert Hanning observes, it "interrupts the flow" of the narrative, so that "for a moment the issues of national birth and freedom are forgotten; history itself is forgotten." Here is Geoffrey's vivid portrayal of the fading shores of home as glimpsed through bereft Ignoge's eyes:
The Trojans sailed away ... Ignoge stood on the high poop and from time to time fell fainting in the arms of Brutus. She wept and sobbed at being forced to leave her relations and her homeland; and as long as the shore lay there before her eyes, she would not turn her gaze away from it. Brutus soothed and caressed her, putting his arms round her and kissing her gently. He did not cease his efforts until, worn out with crying, she fell asleep (1.11)

As Ignoge's home slowly recedes, lost are the possibilities for any life she might have desired for herself, for any history she might have dreamed. Destined to become an appendage of Brutus, the source of his progeny, we next see Ignoge in what appears to be an afterthought, legitimating the birth of three sons (2.1). She is not mentioned again. Her children divide the land and carry on their father's work. It never occurs to them that in their bodies the blood of Troy mingles with that of Greece, that they possess hybrid blood in which two enemies have uneasily been conjoined. The sons of Brutus assume that they are simply Britons, as their father christened his people. They never dwell upon the complexities of history and descent.

Ignoge's gaze opens up the possibility of another story. An alien among strangers, suspended between cultures and no longer able to be of one or the other, Ignoge embodies everything her children so easily forget. Yearning for a home that can never be hers, this princess conveyed to an unfamiliar place suggests the difficulties faced by those who carry an identity full of difference, ambivalence, conflict. Ignoge inhabits that middle space where conqueror meets conquered, where a war unfolds between loathing and desire. She looks back to a receding homeland and forward to the impossible bind of mixed progeny on an island increasingly dominated by a single people. Ignoge is Greek, her husband Trojan, her children Britons, but her tears prevent such easy separations.

Geoffrey of Monmouth dreamed of a world where at first glance history and descent keep insular peoples solitary. As his textual world unfolds in all its intricacy, however, the peoples that populate Britain mingle and become -- despite their own fervent belief to the contrary -- impure. Geoffrey's ambivalent entwining of purity with hybridity is rather like William of Malmesbury's. Both writers posited clean separations but undercut them with anxious, medial spaces: one through marvels, the other through blood. The separateness of the island's peoples might be an impossible dream, but that did not stop this dream from being passionately embraced, much to the sorrow of those who carried blood that could never seem untainted. For these impure beings history was filled with heartache, and the present never ceased to hurt.


Anonymous said...

What a great moment--and I'm glad that you make mention of Bob's reading of Ignonge's vision. I assume that it's from The Vision of History in Early Britain, which I've heard Bob say got rather lacklustre reviews when it was published but has now been rediscovered and embraced by the field. What do you think? Certainly those who speak of it now speak highly of it, but I do know that's a rather old book. (And I've only read bits of it, although when Bob jokingly asked me about it I swore that I keep my copy under my pillow.)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I love Hanning's book, and think it was struly ahead of its time. If it got less than enthusiastic reviews, that's surely because the volume was establishing new ground to survey with the tools of literary criticism.

To me it's the kind of scholarship I envy: after decades, far from outdated.

Karl Steel said...

Nice stuff JJC. Where oh where did Geoffrey of M get that stuff? Is there some artes versificandi-type manual that instructed folk in writing such scenes? It really does seem to have been dropped in ex nihilo.

I'll second it: I've read Vision of History and it just knocks my socks off. Ages age, now, when I'd abandoned my original diss. topic (something like "Discourse of Chivalry in the 15th c.," which I guess was going to be a retread of Huizinga), I went to Bob in a panic at not having a topic.

He told me that the diss that became that book came to him when he'd, also, abandoned his first topic. Iirc, he told me that he was at his parents' place in Brooklyn, vacuuming, and the idea came to him.

Which is more or less how my topic hit me, too.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Clearly I need to vacuum more.

I have no idea where Geoffrey got the Ignoge episode from. It is anomalous ... but then again I gave up being able to come to a secure understanding of what the Historia is all about a long time ago.

E'El said...

If the Greeks and the Trojans are both descendants of Judah through Zerah (Zarah), what does that do to your esoteric analysis tainted ancestery???
You don't think the high culture of Greece was aboriginal, do you?
Just a thought....